On September 20, Donald Trump asserted that “I defeated the caliphate…. I defeated the caliphate — ISIS. ”
The facts, however, speak for themselves. According to a March 23 Independent report:
The Isis caliphate, which once stretched for thousands of miles across Iraq and Syria, has been declared defeated.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, a US-backed group of Kurdish and Arab fighters, announced on Saturday that it had captured the last territory held by the group.
“Syrian Democratic Forces declare total elimination of so-called caliphate and 100 percent territorial defeat of ISIS,” said Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for group.
“On this unique day, we commemorate thousands of martyrs whose efforts made the victory possible,” he added.
This is certainly a far cry from the status of ISIS under Trump’s predecessor, Barack H. Obama. The caliphate both declared itself and reached its strongest point during Obama’s eight year tenure (which is unsurprising as all sorts of Islamists—in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, etc.—came to power under Obama).
As Trump said in the same recent interview, “when I came, the caliphate was all over the place.” He’s referring to the Syrian war, when Obama had supported a nebulous array of “freedom fighters” and “rebels”—many of whom turned out to be “Islamic terrorists,” some linked to and some arguably worse than ISIS.
Even so, it must be remembered that the caliphate has only been defeated in a temporal sense; it remains very much alive as a pivotal idea in Islam.
The word “caliphate” (from Arabic khalifa) means “succession,” and refers to the successors or “caliphs” of Muhammad. As successors or stewards of the prophet, they were to uphold and enforce the mode of governance captured by his Sunna and Koran—in a word, Sharia.
From the death of Muhammad in 632 to 1924—for 1,292 years—much of the Muslim world was ruled by at least one caliphate (sometimes more than one in competition, e.g., Shia Fatimids vs Sunni Abbasids).
A Muslim historian recently underscored the importance of the caliphate:
All pious Muslims well-read in the Hadith (the compiled sayings of the Prophet) firmly believe in the need to establish an Islamic State headed by a Muslim Caliph. This is mentioned twice in the Holy Quran and it’s central to the Islamic faith. No Muslim scholar would debate an Islamic state and the caliphate.
But not only is the caliphate what Islam requires and an integral part of Muslim history; it’s what millions of modern day Muslims desire. According to a 2013 Pew report, “Overwhelming percentages of Muslims in many countries want Islamic law (sharia) to be the official law of the land, according to a worldwide survey by the Pew Research Center.”
Citing the same report, the authors of a 2018 book on Sharia concluded that 69% of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa, 73% in South Asia, and 55% in Central Asia believe that “Sharia is God’s [Allah’s] divine revelation.” Even larger numbers “favored the establishment of Sharia as official law”: 99% in Afghanistan, 84% in South Asia, 74% in the Middle East and North Africa, and 64% in sub-Saharan Africa.
Here the pivotal question arises: Are the things that ISIS was notorious for doing—massacring and beheading “infidels,” giving non-Muslims three choices (Islam, jizya, or death), enslaving and sexually abusing infidel women and children, randomly destroying churches, in short, exhibiting intolerance and cruelty to non-Muslims at every turn—things a legitimate caliphate would do?
The answer is an emphatic YES. Every caliphate, from 632 to 1924, Sunni or Shia, engaged in all the same and even worse atrocities—and always validated their behavior by citing Sharia.
So we end with a good news/bad news scenario: yes, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that declared itself in 2014 as the latest caliphate has been defeated; however, the very idea of what ISIS represented—a Sharia-compliant caliphate—is still in the hearts and minds of millions of pious Muslims.